Capturing the precise recipe is like trying to get an artist to explain how to paint a landscape. Still, there are common building blocks. You start with a corned ham, which is a whole, fresh ham that has taken a long vacation in salt. (Good luck, by the way, finding one outside the county — especially one that weighs less than 20 pounds.)
Next, you chop several pounds of cabbage, kale and onions, then perk it all up with enough black and red pepper “to give it some bite,” as cooks here say.
From there, the recipe diverges into a debate that runs the length of the county. In the north, cooks will tell you to add a lot of kale. In the south, kale is just an accent color, if it goes in the stuffing at all. Whether mustard seed, celery seed or celery itself belongs in the stuffing depends on the version you grew up eating.
The stuffing is packed into pockets cut deep into the meat with techniques that vary from cook to cook. What’s left over — and there will be a lot left over — is pressed around the ham. The whole thing is wrapped in cheesecloth (or a clean pillowcase or T-shirt) and boiled for four or five hours.
Then, you drain the ham and set into the refrigerator to chill, although plenty of people just leave it in the cooking liquid out on the back porch during cool weather. You slice it cold, serving the ham as a main dish or tucked into soft potato rolls or between slices of white bread. Don’t ask about mustard or mayonnaise. You don’t want to start an argument.
A ham stuffed with cabbage simmering on the stove for hours makes a lasting olfactory impression, and not necessarily a good one. Unprompted, even the hams biggest fans allow that the smell can linger for days.
“Old-timers used to cook it all day on Christmas Eve, then put the pot on the back porch, go to midnight Mass, come home, have a sandwich and go to bed,” said Daniel Raley, a retired county commissioner whose family used to run a small grocery store in Ridge, Md., that specialized in stuffed ham. “Everyone smelled like stuffed ham at midnight Mass.”
Even though fewer people are cooking the hams, its cultural significance endures. Retired sailors who spent time at the naval station near the mouth of the Patuxent River have had them shipped to California or even Alaska for holidays, the freight costing more than the ham itself. A couple living an hour north in Washington ordered one for their wedding.
Ham makers compete at the county fair. At fund-raising dinners for churches and volunteer fire departments, stuffed ham is set out on long tables along with fried chicken, crab cakes, steamed shrimp or fried oysters. If you’re in a hurry, a volunteer will hand you some in a foam container from a makeshift drive-through. (The hams fell out of favor at community suppers for a few years after a 1997 incident when one woman died and several hundred people got sick after eating stuffed ham tainted with salmonella.)
Stuffed hams are a big auction item, too. Gilbert Murphy, another of the county’s grocery store ham masters, said one of his once brought in $850 for a local charity.
Mr. Murphy runs Murphy’s Town & Country in a part of the county that locals call the Seventh District. The store has been in his family since 1949, before the supermarket chains and the Dollar Generals started moving in, when most people still cooked stuffed hams at home.
He makes about 400 a year selling them for church dinners, to big families who need a holiday centerpiece, and for $12.99 a pound at the store. The Dent brothers sell a lot by the pound, too.
“There are a lot of young people who’ll come get a sandwich, but they’re not going to make one,” Andy Dent said. “They just don’t want to be bothered, but they have to have the ham.”
Mr. Dent would make at least dozen a week. Around Thanksgiving and Christmas, that number doubled. He was particularly proud of his stuffed ham egg rolls, which are a relatively new invention. He sold a lot of $16 pizzas with stuffed ham as a topping, too. Even his cordon bleu, which costs $16 including two side dishes, was stuffed with stuffed ham.
Everyone from St. Mary’s knows that life’s big events should be punctuated with stuffed ham, so they served it at his funeral.
“We sure did,” said his brother, David. “We had stuffed ham sliders and some of the stuffed ham egg rolls.”
How stuffed ham became the specialty of St. Mary’s County isn’t a question with an easy answer, said Joyce White, a food historian in Maryland.
The ham has a very distant British cousin called stuffed chine. The dish, from Lincolnshire, is made from a brined chunk of pork taken from between the shoulder blades. Herbs are stuffed into slashes in the meat, and then the whole thing is boiled in muslin.
Ms. White and other regional historians say it’s more likely that the dish has Afro-Caribbean roots; indentured or enslaved West Africans would season the greens and onions left over in the winter garden with red pepper, and stuff it into jowls or whatever chunks of pork they had on hand.
But as in so many parts of the South, the line between black and white food is blurry.